Here’s a secret: I’m obsessed with Facebook’s On This Day blasts to the past. It’s narcissism, but so is reading old diaries, right? So seven years ago last week I was in Germany for the first time and my 20-year-old self was blown away by the ultra-coolness that was Berlin. I’m not going to romanticise it into a “and at that moment I knew I would be back” thing, but it sure was the perfect icing on my exchange semester cake. (Carrot cake. Obviously.)
Many years ago a Canadian friend opined, with innocent gravity after his cliche of a summer trip backpacking through Europe:
Europe changes lives.
The statement itself is a cliche as well but it keeps cropping up, even among my friends now who are 30 rather than 20 years old who are on the continent for the first time. Because it’s true! I don’t know if Europeans can appreciate what a special place this is.
At my new job I throw around references to the European Commission and various Directorate Generals like it’s no biggie. And it isn’t, because that’s what the work entails. I’m part of the system now – I’m part of a European political institution! I can’t help but feel as giddy as I felt that time seven years ago in Berlin. It scratches (at least partially) a political geekery itch of mine to be able to connect myself and my work to something that I can see in the news. It’s why I feel lightheaded with excitement every time my boss says things like, “I don’t have to remind you what’s happening in Russian-EU relations right now” in a meeting. And it means that what I do, at least when I punch in at work, is part of the European project.
That feels incredible.
Recall that I am an outsider to both Europe and the EU.
But Brexit clearly underscores which side of the channel I belong on. That I don’t belong on the British side is clear: there’s always been a mild and inexplicable distance between us, even though we share a mother tongue, I was born in a British colony and I grew up in another former one. The province I’m from flies a flag with the Union Jack on it. The Queen is my head of state. But unlike my Anglophile dad, I feel no connection to the place. In contrast, I have lived in the EU for nearly six years now, in arguably the most central part of the union. I work for an EU programme. I speak a non-English EU language. I feel at least as at home here as I do in my own country (more on that on Friday!). In other words, I am planted firmly Euro-side – and my view of Brexit is, too.
That’s why I find it difficult to sympathise with Brits who voted to leave the EU in last week’s referendum. While I know the beliefs and fears that drove Leave votes, if they’d simply considered more factors – we’re not even talking about what is good for the UK right now, but specifically and only about what is good for that voter – it would’ve been an easy Remain vote. Life for the individual Briton will not be better outside the EU. Leave was irrational, illogical, incomprehensible.
That’s the micro. Looking at the macro, my confusion grows. A European union is an experiment of peace, culture, trade, movement and exchange. It tries to connect threads and install structures. It’s one of the most intriguing, if not most worthwhile, endeavours of our generation. The UK will no longer be a part of this experiment. I find that sad because, as an adopted kid in this system, I embrace the system, warts and all. I’m trying to find a place to fit in and belong. The rebel biological child who has never truly felt at ease in this house, on the other hand, is cutting loose due to a self-absorbed interpretation of history and confused understanding of its own identity.
The voting data and social and political (and economic) consequences of Brexit are a goldmine for social scientists. What’s even more interesting, though, is this intangible sense of loss and sadness from Remain voters and the somewhat cold shoulder showed them by EU leaders. Then elsewhere on the Continent there is the growing discontent towards the EU as a political institution and a resulting rise in nationalism and return to national borders. Everyone wants out, except for those who don’t. The house is disintegrating just as I’m finally starting to move in.